Short Attention Span


Imelda Marcos kissing the glass tomb of her late husband, former Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
Imelda Marcos kissing the glass tomb of her late husband, former Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

The late American artist Andy Warhol once said, “In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes”. This iconic phrase would later coin the concept of ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ as used by TV shows, talent competitions and other modes of media. Warhol is saying that there will come a time when individuals will garner fame but then are forgotten in a very short span of time. Presumably Andy Warhol is implying that in the future, people’s attention span will be comparable to that of a goldfish.

While Warhol was alive in the mid-20th century and at that time the idea seemed farfetched, nowadays with the introduction of new technology such as the mobile phone, the iPhone or even the internet we realize Andy was right after all. While these devices are designed to make life convenient and to speed up different activities that traditionally would require several days, we ignore that they have an adverse effect: it ruins concentration and our patience. Ultimately, it shortens our attention span.

Think about it, how often have we walked to the kitchen and opened the fridge door but forgot what we were looking for? This phenomenon is the subject of many internet memes these days, with most people seeing it as a mere joke to share with their peers or in the workplace. What they don’t know is these are symptoms of a deterioration of brain cells, the shortening of our ability to concentrate. Ask any psychologist and they would tell you that attention span is important to achieving one’s goals and fulfilling their tasks. The inability to remain on task without being distracted for a prolonged period of time is perhaps the scenario Andy Warhol warned us about.

Attention span may be vital to an individual’s personal development, but it is not limited to one’s self. What if a collective group of individuals suffer from the same condition? This would be detrimental to the society as well. Put the Philippines into perspective, where else in the world does a head-of-state become the nation’s most hated, gets convicted for plunder and is given a life sentence only for him to rally massive public support and place second in presidential elections barely ten years later? Joseph Estrada became the poster boy of corruption when he was impeached in 2001, but during the 2010 elections he suddenly became the image of change and the power of the lower class in the country. How soon did we Filipinos forget the jueteng scandal? The CCTV footage of him and Charlie Ang inside a casino while elected head-of-state? The extramarital affairs that made us suspect that he was a member of the Muslim faith practicing polygamy?

Convicted former Philippine president Joseph Estrada.
Convicted former Philippine president Joseph Estrada.

Estrada is just one example of the Filipino’s inability to remember the events of the past, instances of a shortening attention span is evident everyday in the mainstream media. Think about it, primetime news in our country is followed by a primetime drama series because they are the same concept anyway. There is always a twist, a tragedy, a protagonist and an antagonist present in the news. It seems to be a never-ending storyline of betrayal, conspiracy and drama into one that puts Prison Break to shame.

Just two months ago, the country was glued to the events in Sabah and the incursions of Jamalul Kiram and his followers. Then shortly after that we were at melting point when an intruding Chinese fishing vessel grounded in the Tubbataha Reef, but soon after all that anger turned to sympathy for TV host Kris Aquino when she accused her ex-husband James Yap of sexual harassment. In a span of a month the news covered three different genres; with that being said, what’s the point of paying to see IronMan 3? Just two years ago the Filipino public were outraged by the corrupt practices of the Philippine generals who paid themselves hefty retirement funds and travel benefits; today, you can ask any passerby in the streets of EDSA what the names of those generals were and surely they would not be able to name any of them.

Do you remember the Martial Law era? When the husband and wife tandem of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos made the national treasury their own bank account and the military their own army of personal guards? Of course, no Filipino will forget about the Marcos Family – they are mentioned consistently by History teachers both in the Philippines and around the world. But do Filipinos still remember all the atrocities that were committed by them during this era? Apparently not.

Recently, in social media websites there has been a clamor among Filipinos that is hard to believe. A viral campaign enumerating the supposed heroics of the Marcoses is spreading on Facebook and among blogs. The series of anecdotes posted as a caption to a cheesy photo of Imelda kissing Ferdinand’s preserved corpse in a glass coffin tells stories of how the Philippine peso was at 2:1 US dollar, how the Philippines was the largest rice exporter, how the country became the first to have a train system and an airline in Asia and a few more. A ridiculous propaganda that a number of Filipinos have taken to heart.

Marcos during the height of his rule as a dictator.
Marcos during the height of his rule as a dictator.

Let’s break each one of those points down, starting from the notion that the strength of the Peso was comparable to the US dollar. Even before Marcos was elected leader, the Philippine currency was at Php3 = US$1 thanks to his predecessor Diosdado Macapagal’s decision to break off its ties with the US dollar, to become more of an independent nation. So the claim that the Peso was at 2:1 because of Marcos’ reforms is rather ludicrous to believe in. On the subject of rice production, the country recorded an almost miraculously improvement in rice farming almost tripling the amount of rice it produced. However, most analysts would suggest that this was due to the establishment of the International Rice Research Institute’s headquarters in the country that embarked on research projects that enabled high yield from rice crops. The most eyecatching fact people should know is that during Marcos’ last full year as president in 1985, the country imported half a million tons of rice making us one of the world’s largest importers of the crop. Such an amazing turnaround in our fortunes.

It is rather arrogant as well to claim that thanks to Marcos, the country was the first to have a train and airline in the continent. While the Philippine Air Lines is recognized as Asia’s oldest airline, it was founded in 1941 when Ferdinand was only 24 years old and was still fighting the Japanese as he claimed to be. Rail transport in the Philippines was also not introduced by the Marcos administration, in fact it was during the Spanish colonial era that the first rail tracks were laid out in 1891. Even Malaysia (1885) and Indonesia (1867) introduced their inaugural railway trips before the Philippines, and certainly far before Ferdinand Marcos was even born. There is also talk that Marcos would have taken a different stand in dealing with Sabah, and had he not been removed as leader the northern part of Borneo would be milking billions of dollars into our economy. Let us learn to read our history books once in a while, it was Ferdinand Marcos who first surrendered the Philippine claim of Sabah when he wanted to strengthen the ASEAN region against the rise of Communism by creating SEATO. He wanted to appease Malaysia, hence he chose to abandon the Sabah claim initiated by Diosdado Macapagal. If people are angry that the Philippines has lost Sabah to Malaysia, they should blame Marcos rather than to glorify him.

The claim that would irk most intelligent people today is that Marcos’ pet project, the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant, would have been the answer to the country’s problems and today we would have been a well-off nation. From the start of construction, it had all the tell-tale signs of another white elephant project that had corruption written all over it. An investigation into bribery and overpricing was started, with the government suing Westinghouse Power Company as a result. A thorough study on the construction process also revealed over 4,000 defects on the reactor, which would put the country in a very risky situation. The biggest damage however that the Power Plant gave the country was the obligation of repaying the debt incurred in building it. It took the Philippines over 30 years before fully paying its’ debt in 2007. The price was US$2.1B and the power plant, which was equipped with a light water reactor and designed to produce over 600 megawatts of power, eventually never produced a single watt of electricity.

Make no mistake about it, Ferdinand Marcos was arguably one of the most intelligent leader our nation ever had; and it’s true, the reforms he made during his first term as President strengthened the country’s economy. Imelda’s love for the country was undeniable as well, spearheading several projects such as the Cultural Center of the Philippines, Lung Center of the Philippines, Folk Arts Theatre and even securing the hosting rights for the 1974 Miss Universe Pageant that placed the Philippines on the map. However, it’s always the end result that history scrutinizes. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, as the old saying goes.

The late former President Ferdinand Marcos.
The late former President Ferdinand Marcos.

While President Marcos made great strides in uplifting the Philippine economy, boosting the nation into becoming one of the most wealthy in Asia even superior to South Korea, Singapore and China during his first term as President, the momentum was halted when political turmoil marred his second stint as head-of-state. The Plaza Miranda bombings was the significant turning point of the Marcos regime, as Martial Law would engulf the nation shortly afterwards. As we all know, that dark period in our country’s history was when our freedom was suppressed and thousands of people lost their lives in politically-related killings across the country. It also gave a reason for rebel groups such as the New People’s Army, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Moro National Liberation Front to take up arms, waging a decades-old war that still haunts our country until this very day. Let us also not forget the widespread corruption that occurred during that period, when votes were blatantly rigged and the courts being controlled by the elite and friends of those in power. When newspapers were shut down and businesses owned by those who did not support the government were seized. Ferdinand Marcos proudly said during his inauguration: “I will make the Philippines great again.”  but by the time the Marcos family boarded the helicopter that took them to Hawaii, the Philippines had lost any greatness it had and a mountainous task of rebuilding was inherited by his successor, Corazon Aquino.

However, the single greatest damage the Martial Law era inflicted our nation was that corruption became part of our way of life. It was during that era that plunder and cronyism, or favoritism was tolerated greatly in public office that it has become some sort of a culture in the Philippines. Corruption is evident in the lives of Filipinos today: when government agency clerks ask for a fee in expediting documents, when agencies prolong the process of obtaining permits due to neglect, even as little as the improper disposal of our litter. Any time we think it’s okay to bend the rules and disobey procedures is a practice of corruption. If we look at our neighbors, particularly Singapore, they aim to get work done as efficiently as possible. In Japan, whenever a person is accused of committing a dishonor to his name it usually results in their suicide. These two countries take service and their obligations seriously, look how well their society is doing.

Using taxpayer money, Ferdinand had this ostentatious stone monument of himself erected in his home province of Ilocos Norte.
Using taxpayer money, Ferdinand had this ostentatious stone monument of himself erected in his home province of Ilocos Norte.

These recent campaigns supposedly highlighting the heroics of the late former President Marcos is an example of how short the Filipino’s attention span is. The most obvious reason one can think for this is the fact that President Noynoy Aquino, the son of Marcos’ archnemesis Ninoy Aquino, is making a number of reforms that are unpopular with the masses. Is it fair to dislike a man for following his convictions? Aren’t we tired of those politicians who are all show and care most about their popularity? It was not long ago that the country took pride at having the world’s first people power revolution, now we have Filipinos who are calling for the man they removed with that same revolution a hero. Lee Kwan Yew, Singapore’s former prime minister, wrote in his book: “Only in the Philippines could a leader like Ferdinand Marcos, who pillaged his country for over 20 years, still be considered for a national burial.” It is amusing how badly the Marcos ransacked the Philippine treasury, how the images of Imelda’s thousand pairs of shoes and her acquisition of million-dollar towers in New York is still fresh in the minds of Filipinos yet there are three members of the Marcos name elected into public office today.

George Santayana, a Spanish philosopher, once said that “those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat their mistakes”. It makes sense then, why so many of our country’s problems are mere reruns of the events in our past. Electing a corrupt leader, rice shortages, power shortages, territorial crisis – we have all seen this before. Usually, when a mistake happens one resolves to prevent it from happening again. But how can we make such a resolution when the remedy we make for our problems is to forget them? Maybe if our leaders reflected on the past before they make a decision, mistakes would be less frequent. If the ordinary, every noypi would remember his history before casting his ballot could our country finally put the past behind us. Yes it’s true, there is no point living in the past. It is an absolute that the past should be forgotten and we should learn to move on, but the the lessons which the past has taught should be like a scar that we always see and reflect on.

Having a short attention span, or a disability to focus on a task at hand and forgetting what we were doing beforehand, is indeed counterproductive. But how do we get rid of it when it has been engraved into our everyday lives? People would say that our constitution is flawed but what they don’t realize is that the Filipino culture is flawed too. How common is it for a Filipino to expect one leader to turn the tables and to make our country prosper? We are a Christian country after all and we are taught about a Messiah who will save us. But Jesus was a divine being and not a mortal, how often does someone divine run for public office in the Philippines? We should stop expecting for a messiah and be the heroes our country needs instead.

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